The most common mistake we make as football analysts is overreacting to the most recent game or event while ignoring longer trends. A week ago, the Saints were championed as one of the “hottest” teams in the league. Bandwagoners were quick to point out a three-game winning streak and only one loss over their last six. This, of course, ignored the Saints appalling first four games as well as their weak mid-season schedule.
Similarly, many of us (myself included) saw the Giants’ recent struggles and felt the Packers could take them in New York. We focused on the fact Eli Manning hadn’t thrown a touchdown pass in a month. We focused on their last two games, both losses. We focused on the “revenge” factor we assumed would motivate the Packers.
Yet we ignored what really mattered: the Packers’ struggles with physical defenses, the extra week of planning the Giants gained from their bye week, and most importantly, Green Bay’s propensity for allowing pressure on Aaron Rodgers.
After eleven weeks of play, the Packers have given up 37 sacks. Only the Cardinals, who’ve alternated between three subpar quarterbacks, have given up more. Currently the Packers are projected to give up just under 54 sacks for 2012, the second highest one year total in team history.
So, where’s the Band-Aid? What can the team do to solve its historically pathetic pass protection?
Option 1: Call Chad Clifton
The most common suggestion from fans is for Ted Thompson to make a call to Chad Clifton and see if he’d like to pick up a few more game checks. As fans are wont to do, this campaign makes the misguided assumption that Chad Clifton can still play. Last year demonstrated beyond any doubt that Clifton’s illustrious playing career is over. Even before Clifton’s injury he struggled with physical pass rushers, the very same ones the Packers struggle with today. Clifton is now 36 years old and hasn’t played a snap since January. This is ultimately not a solution.
Option 2: Derek Sherrod
Unfortunately, Derek Sherrod has contributed little to the Packers since they selected him in the 2011 draft. Worse, he’s not going to contribute again anytime soon. By all accounts, Sherrod will be placed on season-ending injured reserve sometime this week.
Option 3: Play Don Barclay at Tackle or Greg Van Roten at Guard
Much like the axiom, “the most popular player is the backup quarterback,” fans have started to grumble about trying out one of the unknown rookie linemen. In one scenario, Greg Van Roten would take over for Evan Dietrich-Smith. In another, T.J. Lang would shift back to his usual left guard spot with Don Barclay filling in at right tackle. These are novel ideas, but both bad ones. While the Packers have previously found undrafted free agents capable of contributing right away, this is generally a rare occurrence. The reviews of these players during camp were mixed, and neither is considered more than a long term project. Maybe next year one of these two will find a way to contribute, but even that’s a shaky proposition.
Option 4: Give More Snaps to John Kuhn in Single Back Sets
John Kuhn has been Green Bay’s best back in pass protection all year. Using Kuhn more often in single back sets – whether Rodgers is under center or in the shotgun – should give an extra second of protection. Kuhn has also demonstrated ability as a pass catcher. However, there’s a reason the coaching staff hasn’t and won’t make this adjustment fulltime. Kuhn is a subpar runner. Because Kuhn does not have much burst, there’s only a limited number of gaps he can run towards. Other teams know this, and have managed their defenses accordingly. Playing Kuhn more in single back sets will give defenses more freedom to clog the middle of the line and drop their safeties back. The Packers will probably use Kuhn more in single back sets, but don’t expect it to become their regular offense.
Option 5: Throw from the Spread
Rodgers has maintained that when the Packers put four or five receivers on the field, it gives them an advantage over any defensive backfield in the league. He’s right, but the drawback is the offensive line isn’t giving Rodgers much time to pass. Quick throws out of spread formations give the Packers a chance to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers against subpar defensive backs. In fact, the Packers have gone to this more and more the past two weeks with Cobb serving as the main beneficiary. This is what the Packers used to subsidize the run game in 2010 and 2011 and everyone knows how that worked out. This is another partial solution, but probably the most practical.
It’s important to remember that Mike McCarthy has been able to make major in-season adjustments before, and he’s likely to figure something out again. The last two weeks featured two of the best defensive fronts Green Bay will face all year. The Packers need to produce better protection. They’ve struggled with it all year. However, it’s incredibly premature to discount the Packers because of what’s happened the past few weeks. The Packers have given up 50+ sacks before during the Rodgers-McCarthy era and made the playoffs. They should be able to do that again this year.